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Florence Cole as a child

Having the chimney swept
in the early 1900s

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Why chimneys needed sweeping

Since coal fires were the only form of heating in the early 1900s in working class family houses like ours, they were lit every day in winter. As the chimneys got blocked up with soot, they would billow dirty black smoke out into the room. So it was essential to have the chimney swept once or twice a year. What a business it was!

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Preparations for the chimney sweep's visit

My mother would engage a chimney sweep to come as early in the day as possible, preferably before breakfast. This was because of all the clearing up that had to be done afterwards, which was no quick business.

London chimney sweep with equipment, early 1900s

A London chimney sweep in the early 1900s.

This image exists on a number of sites on the internet, but I have been unable to locate its origin. If you hold the copyright, please contact me.

Kevin Dowey of A Complete Sweep told me that in his experience the wide brush shown in the photo would have been for chimneys built during or before the Victorian era. Afterwards, from the early 1900s onwards new houses were built with narrower chimneys, requiring smaller brushes. He also pointed out that the rods in the photo would have been rigid, unlike the superior bendable ones used since the development of plastics.

The day before the sweep was due to come, my mother would take all the china off the dresser. Then everything that was not in everyday use would be taken down, including the curtains and the pictures. All the movable furniture was put into another room or covered with dust sheets. Finally everything that could be washed was washed, ready to be put back when the room had been cleaned up after the sweep had gone.

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The chimney sweep's equipment

The sweep would arrive with his brushes, sacks, shovel and cloths. He would drape a large cloth with a hole in it in front of the fireplace. The hole was for the brush to go through.

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The process of the chimney sweeping

A child sweeps the chimney!

I well remember my mother wanting the chimney swept in the 1950s and 60s in Glossop, Derbyshire. The main problem was that there was a bend in the chimney, so the local sweeps did not want the job. They wanted to charge so much that my mother got me do it. I had to go into the loft, remove quite a few bricks from the side of the flue, and then sweep up the chimney and then down. Afterwards I had to re-brick the flue. Not for the faint hearted! In all it took about half a day, even before the process of cleaning up the house. I was 12 years old when this started and I continued to do it for my mother to the grand old age of 27.

John Heaton

We would all go into the scullery to let him get on with his work of joining his lengths of rod together to extend his brush to the right length.

Chimney sweep's brush at the top of a chimney, showing that the chimney had been swept properly: Victorian to mid 20th century

The sweep's brush showing through the top of the chimney. Photographed in Milestones Museum, Basingstoke.

After a while, we would hear him shout out. This would mean that the brush was out of the top of the chimney. We would then be expected to go down to the end of the garden to check that the brush really the was out off the top of the chimney, which meant that he had done his job properly. Having seen the brush, we would shout out that we had seen it, and he would pull the brush back down.

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clearing up after the chimney being swept

Early 1900s chimney sweep with his brushes, sacks, and cloths

An early 1900s chimney sweep with his brushes, sacks, and cloths. The large cloth was for draping in front of the fireplace and had a hole in it for the brush to go through.

This image exists on a number of sites on the internet, but I have been unable to locate its origin. If you hold the copyright, please contact me.

There was a great deal of soot for him to shovel up because there was no vacuum cleaner to collect it. He shovelled it into sacks, as best he could, but much of it escaped. He would always ask if we wanted soot for the garden, a general belief being that it was good for the ground. My mother's answer was usually no. It was bad enough with all the mess inside the house without him emptying sacks of soot onto the garden making a cloud of black over all the plants. He no doubt had a market elsewhere for our soot.

To allow time for all the dust to settle, we then had our breakfast in the scullery, before starting the major operation of cleaning up. First of all, my mother would sweep and brush up the loose soot from the floor which was oilcloth. [Oilcloth was a heavy duty cloth treated to create a wipe-over surface. It was not unlike vinyl flooring to look at, but quite thin and would crack easily.]

My mother would put a duster around the head of a broom, sweep the ceiling and walls and then with a bucket of soapy water wash everything that was washable including the floor. Then later in the day she would go back with a duster and put the crockery and pictures, etc back in their places. There would still be a film of dust everywhere. So the cleaning had to keep being repeated until everywhere was clean.

Thank goodness we only had to have the sweep once or twice a year!

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.